New York: Catholic church offering French-language masses to close

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Jun 5 13:12:35 UTC 2006

>>From the NYTimes, June 5, 2006

Amid Closings, Preparing to Bid a Chelsea Church Adieu

Marie-Grace Alizata Traore had two wishes when she traded the volatility
of the Ivory Coast for the prospect of a quiet life in Jersey City three
years ago: a stable job and a Roman Catholic church where she could
worship in French. Finding work was fairly easy; Ms. Traore, 37, became a
home health aide within a few months of leaving West Africa. But finding a
church that offered Mass in her native tongue was not as simple. A year
went by before a co-worker told Ms. Traore about the Church of St.
Vincent de Paul in Chelsea, which has been the religious center for French
speakers in the New York area since 1857.

"I used to have to go to English Mass," Ms. Traore said yesterday,
speaking in French, "but I couldn't understand what the priest was saying,
so I just stopped going to church. "But this place here," she continued,
her arms outstretched, her palms facing the domed roof at St. Vincent de
Paul's, "it's a lot more than just a church to me. This is my home in this
country." Though it is the only church in New York City that offers Mass
in French (some churches that cater to Haitians mix Creole and French
during religious services), St. Vincent de Paul's may be drawing its last

On March 28, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York announced plans to
close 31 parishes in the metropolitan region mostly in Manhattan and the
Bronx as well as to build several new church buildings north of New York
City, where many Catholics have moved. St. Vincent de Paul is on the list
of closings. The Rev. Gerard E. Murray, the French-speaking pastor at St.
Vincent de Paul's, said that Sunday's French Mass drew 200 people at best,
most of them African immigrants. Only on rare occasions, like religious
feasts or the monthly family Mass organized by the Lyce Franais, a private
school on the Upper East Side, is the church filled to capacity.

"It's sad to lose a parish," Father Murray said, "but the archdiocese has
a shortage of priests and we have parishes that have been greatly reduced,
so in that case, it makes sense to have fewer parishioners served by fewer
parishes." A final decision from the archdiocese is expected in the next
few weeks.  If St. Vincent de Paul closes, there will still be a French
Mass in the city, Father Murray said, though he does not know where it
would be held.

The Church of St. Vincent de Paul is an elegant Greek Revival building on
West 23rd Street, in the heart of a thriving neighborhood. It is big
enough to accommodate 400 people, on wooden pews that are surrounded by 10
stained-glass windows, each depicting a Biblical scene. A small chapel
devoted to St. Thrse sits to the left of the main entrance and honors the
French soldiers who died in foreign wars past. Construction of the church
began in 1841 with funds gathered by the French community here and abroad.
Now, the Sunday morning French service draws parishioners from 65 nations:
from the Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Togo and dozens of other countries in
Africa, to Belgium, Switzerland, Lebanon and France.

"There are many, many different countries that pray together each Sunday,"
said Isabelle Gibson, a catechism teacher at the Lyce Franais. "We have a
huge community to draw upon, and even though it's difficult to attract
everybody, there's great potential and we were just beginning to tap it
when we heard that our church might close." Yesterday, the church was full
during French Mass (it also holds one in English), as many people showed
up to celebrate the feast of Pentecost, the descent of the Holy Spirit
upon the Apostles. Then, on the sidewalk outside, dozens of parishioners
gathered after the service to plead for the survival of their parish. The
protest took on a celebratory air when a man began to bang on drums and a
group of African women broke out in a cheerful hymn.

If the parish closes, the archdiocese plans to demolish the church and
build a chapel in its place, inside a building that would rise on the
church's lot, Father Murray said.

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